Review: General Jan Smuts – David Brock Katz

Having waited patiently and expectantly since about 2016 for this study on Smuts as a military commander in World War 1 to come out, I have to say upfront that I’m disappointed in General Jan Smuts and his First World War in Africa 1914-1917 by David Brock Katz.

In short, David has sadly missed, or ignored, the complexity of Smuts, and by not taking the political context into account, has misinterpreted some of Smuts’ motives and actions. In addition, there are numerous inaccuracies and contradictions throughout the book – most of which should have been picked up in the proofing stage. There are also far too many typographical errors for my liking. While the book appears to be well referenced, this belies the selectivity of sources and omission of some such as War Diaries (other than two concerning Salaita Hill in February 1916), reports in the London Gazette and papers in the UK Parliamentary and Imperial War Museum archives as well as the British Library (India Office collection). Finally, I felt there was an imbalance in content – for a book touting an assessment of Smuts’ World War 1 experience, of the 260 pages of text, 50 concerned his pre-WW1 life and involvement in politics with no links made as to how this would play out in the years 1914-1918. Similarly, a whole chapter is allocated to the battle of Salaita Hill which occurred before Smuts arrived as commander in the theatre. Although the title of this chapter suggests a discussion on a clash of military doctrine, it fails to link with Smuts’ later actions, or what had happened in German South West Africa. The conclusion of the book reads like an academic assignment, telling the reader what the book covered through repetition of what had been said before, effectively a narrative summary, with little development of argument or new areas for investigation.

The most fluid read were the few chapters on the campaign in East Africa. However, this also contains somewhat heavy-handed criticism of the  works of Ross Anderson and Hew Strachan. Elsewhere in the text, there is criticism of Ian van der Waag and Rodney Warwick who are challenged on their interpretations of the battle of Sandfontein. While some of the criticisms against all four might be justified, there has been a failure to adequately contextualise these works and they ways in which they challenged the existing historiography. All the texts are nearly 20 years old. They were researched and published at a time when access to foreign archives was not as easy as today and while the internet was available, the rich links to archival material did not yet exist. In criticising these historians for being selective in their source material, David opens himself to the same criticism. Concerning criticism and evidence of his source selectivity, it was rather surprising not to see my own work challenged, especially as I have written a fair amount on the leadership of the campaign and generally agree with statements made by all four mentioned historians. But then, I’m a student of war, not a specialist of military strategy or tactics and this appears to be a significant divide for David. ‘Many contemporary historians’ are referred to – who they are, we are not told. His decision to not engage with contemporary material (except for one or two texts) has led to major gaps in his work and misinterpretation.

To address all the weaknesses in the book would lead to another book and would appear nit-picky. So, I touch on only a few. I have also limited my comments to East Africa, as my concerns regarding South West Africa and Palestine would require much longer contextual explanations.

In discussing the leadership of the East Africa campaign, David has regarded the commanding officers pre-Smuts’ arrival as British Army. What has been missed, is that they were all Indian Army, who although trained in British military fashion had adapted their ways to the Indian Army where officers tended to lead from the front. (George Morton Jack refers amongst others) In addition, the Indian Army was the first port of call for additional troops in Africa rather than British troops. They therefore had a history and some inherent knowledge of the theatre they were engaging in. Little was said about Charles Callwell’s Small wars in relation to how the East Africa campaign was fought, yet Richard Meinterzhagen‘s views are regularly considered (it is only acknowledged in the conclusion that questions have been raised about his reliability as a source).

Many questions remain unanswered in the book. Smuts seemed to fall into the same trap in chasing von Lettow-Vorbeck across East Africa that Kitchener fell into in trying to stop Smuts’ raid into the Cape. How was this? Why did Smuts think von Lettow-Vorbeck would surrender at the end of 1916 when Smuts knew that if he’d been in the same position, he would not have done so? On p169 there is mention of Lettow-Vorbeck and the Boers operating together to suppress uprisings in GSWA. This is incorrectly dated to 1900-1901 which is during the Boer War when Lettow-Vorbeck was first in the German Colonial Office and then China. Lettow-Vorbeck was in GSWA with von Trotha and the Herero uprising of 1904-1907. Who is the von Botha referred to in his memoir? Would Lord Milner really have allowed senior Boer commando leaders who would not co-operate in his government to join the Germans to suppress an uprising? Why has Smuts not said anything about this in any of his letters?

While I promote, the use of primary sources in historical writing, particularly when writing about the campaigns in Africa during WW1, there is great value in using secondary sources to verify interpretations and criticisms but also to open new windows onto situations and sources. Two missing texts which spring to mind are the Regimental History of the Durban Light Infantry (vol 1) by AC Martin especially as they were one of the South African units caught at Salaita, and James Willson’s Guerrillas of Tsavo. While this last is not an academic study, its value lies in the fact that James has walked the battlefield, uncovering numerous bases – Mbuyuni, Mashoti, Serengeti, Hill 930 etc and together with material available in Kenya, has pieced together the events around Salaita and Latema-Reata. It was my having visited the battlefields with James and time spent in the area around Kilimanjaro that got me looking at the maps in General Smuts – based on existing maps, they do little to illustrate the case put forward especially as border markings were left out making it unclear what was in British or German territory. Similarly, in a number of maps, adding the position of Kilimanjaro, a significant landmark, would have given a clearer visual of the area under discussion.

Statements along the lines of “Salaita, deep inside British territory” alerted me to the fact that David hadn’t experienced the battlefields there, the same applies to his comments about Stewart’s march through Longido. On Stewart’s advance, had mention been made of his poor leadership at Bukoba in early 1915, the argument would hold greater sway than the single assessment of his progress around Kilimanjaro – it’s challenging enough today in a vehicle on tarred roads, let alone in uncut bush, not knowing where Germans were hiding. It was also striking that little has been said of the removal of Stewart’s mounted unit before he embarked on his march.

A feature running throughout the book is the split in the Union Defence Force between mounted Boer and infantry English forces and how the former differs to British fighting strategy with regards encirclement and frontal attack. Yet, the fact that the South African forces mainly involved at Salaita are SA infantry is missed. Having recently worked through Ludwig Boell’s history* of the campaign from the German perspective, it was rather intriguing to read of the German tendency to use encirclement where possible. Yet, I did not pick up on this in David’s discussion of the clash in military doctrines despite his having used Boell.

For all I’ve said and could say, there is still value in General Jan Smuts. It will certainly start a new discussion on Smuts and leadership of the African campaigns. I learnt that Smuts joined the Victoria College Rifle Association whilst a student there – before he went to Cambridge – and a little more about the Anglo-Boer War. There are also numerous potentially useful references to follow up on. I may have used some in the past for different purposes but will now be going back to assess my initial interpretation.

In conclusion, however, the potential strengths of this book are outweighed by the points mentioned above. I would therefore only recommend General Jan Smuts if you are doing an academic study and need it for your historiography or literature review. In the meantime, I look forward to the next book investigating Smuts (and Botha) as commanders in World War 1 – by Antonio Garcia and Ian van der Waag.

* An English translation of Boell’s history is soon to be published by the Great War in Africa Association.

It’s amazing what can be accomplished … in war

Reading Flight into the Abyss: Zeppelin Operation in Africa 1917-1918 by Owen P Hall Jr, if what he’s written is accurate (one too many fundamental errors for my liking about the war in East Africa), it cost $750 000 to manufacture the zeppelin which went to provide supplies to the Germans. That works out at roughly 0.8% of what the East Africa campaign cost the British government. That is quite an investment – especially given the chance being taken that the airship would arrive.

The British also embarked on huge cost initiatives which didn’t last. Aside from air, weapon and ammunition development, railways were built – not all in places which would add value after the war – the Voi to Moshi railway springs to mind. Also the incredible cost of tarring roads which, after the war, reverted to bush (Edmund Yorke, Britain, Northern Rhodesia and the First World War).

Money seemed to be spent without second thought, by all belligerents, although the British Colonial Office did seem to try and curb what they thought unnecessary expenditure. Yet, today, when people in Africa and elsewhere are in desperate need, money is not forthcoming. What does this tell us about humanity’s priorities and values?

Lord Kitchener had the idea that by lifting the people who were at the bottom of the economic ladder, thereby reducing the wealth gap, one would reduce the potential for conflict (Egypt). He was also very creative in using budgets to get buildings he needed built (prisons vs warehouses in Red Sea Literal). 

How do we get the balance right between peace-time investment and development so that we don’t end up in war where money is spent needlessly?  If we can make incredible achievements and investments in war for no long-term gain, why can’t we do the same for long-term progress in peace-time?

Review: Promoting Agricultural Export Crops & Co-operative Societies in Tanzania – Somo ML Seimu

I have a confession (or more) to make regarding Promoting Agricultural Export Crops and Co-operative Societies in Tanzania during the British and Post Colonial Era, c 1914-2014. The book appealed to me for a number of reasons:

1. It took me back to Tanzania, and one of my favourite towns – Moshi – which is where the main coffee co-operative is based. The KNCU coffee shop was a good place to meet and have a coffee. Discovering how it fits into the wider co-operative movement and its influence on the rest of the country was fascinating. Little had I realised its national significance.

2. I love coffee so gaining a better understanding of how it came to be a dominant part of the Kilimanjaro economy has been a bonus.

3. World War 1 features – this is a longitudinal look, over a century, at the development of export commodities, mainly coffee, but also cotton and rice. Seimu traces the start of mass production under the short German colonial rule and the consequence of the 1914-1918 war leading to the British taking over. How they built on, and further developed, the German system making it British, until the Africanisation from post-WW2 is the main focus of the book. In dealing with what could be rather politically sensitive matters, Seimu has maintained an objective view by keeping the focus on primary source material. Gaining an idea of what is held in the Tanzanian archives (also referred to as TNA – the same as The [British] National Archives] has been great. Returning to World War 1, from as early as 1916, civil administration was being re-introduced in the Kilimanjaro area with colonial officials working with the Chagga community to improve their lot and to give them an opportunity to hold their own against the white and Asian settler communities. It’s a reinforcement of the importance of having the right people in place to enable collaboration, irrespective of background.

4. I worked closely with the author to get the book published – through the GWAA.

So, yes, I am biased, but for anyone wanting to discover how coffee and other co-operatives developed and changed over time in Tanzania, as well as getting an insight into Tanzanian economic policy and how politics influences such, then this is a book worth reading. All due to the legacy of World War One, but more significantly Africans taking the initiative.

Currency issues

Without getting into the ongoing debate of Britain’s relationship with Europe, I was intrigued to read on 24 April 1919 of a suggestion to introduce “an international note of currency”. Its purpose would be “to supply the credit which will pay for food, raw materials – not to speak of reparations! Two birds with one stone.” 

The one bird being finance, the other linking people/countries together as a means to maintain peace. (Smuts papers iv, p127). This tied in with the idea behind the League of Nations, the single currency idea being put forward by Keynes and backed by Smuts.

So often, we see rates of pay, income, salaries and costs stated without any context. This is fine when working in a single currency at a particular time, but it can cause problems working cross-culturally and over time.

Over the years I’ve been researching the First World War in Africa, I’ve come to realise that there were different currencies in operation in the same East African theatre: the Indian rupee in the north as it was the main currency in British East Africa (Kenya) and the shilling in the south, as used in Nyasaland (Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). The Germans had their own currency too. What is therefore helpful in books mentioning rates of pay etc, is the comparative such as Sana Aiyar notes in Indians in Kenya. In the 1920s when the currency was changed from the rupee to the East African shilling, the income level of black Africans effectively reduced by 33%. The rate of pay was not changed but the cost of living increased based on the exchange rate of the new currency.

In 1915, the hut tax in BEA was 3 rupees 5, increased in 1920 to no more than 10 rupees each.  At that time, the rupee exchanged at R1,500 to £100, ie 1 rupee 4 was the equivalent of 1 shilling. With the new currency, the exchange dropped to R1,000 to £100 (pp86-90, Indians in Kenya). In Chiwaya War Voices, covering the experiences of Nyasalanders in the war, hut tax was between 2.5s and 6s.

Some years ago, I came across this little site (https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/ppoweruk/) which measures the purchasing power of the British pound since 1270. It’s quite sobering. Taking 3s as the most commonly quoted hut tax charge in war-time Nyasaland, today it would be the equivalent of £12.29 or £108.20 depending on what you take into consideration. So, if we take the BEA hut tax as equating to 4 shillings, this equated to £16.39 or £144.20. What we need to know for both, however, is what their respective earnings were. The Nyasalander soldier was paid £1 1s 4d = £87.42 or £769.40. One assumes this was per month.

Concerning West African currency during the war years, Bamidele Aly explores the monetary policy and introduction of bank notes in Southern Nigeria in 1916 in There Came a Time.

If nothing else, a single currency would make historians’ lives easier when it comes to comparing standards of living and other such factors.

Novelist – CS Forester

Forester’s most well-known World War One story is The African Queen, the film rather than the book. I’ve written on this before, there being numerous versions of the story with the book having more on the actual campaign than the film. His only book on World War 1 Africa is The African Queen inspired by a poster he saw in a London tube station after his agent pressured him to write something again. The events he writes about in the book happened when he was 16 years old.

The film released in 1964 has its own story to tell. Katherine Hepburn wrote of her experiences of the filming in The Making of the African Queen or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost my Mind (and I see there’s a Youtube version too). And in case you weren’t aware there is another book and film of the time leading up to the making of The African Queen. This by Peter Viertel who tidied up the script of the film and tried to keep Huston on the straight and narrow. His account in both film and book are under the title White Hunter, Black Heart. Interestingly, in neither Hepburn nor Viertel’s account does CS Forester feature.

1899 – Born, 27 August in Cairo, Egypt
1921 – starts writing, using pen name of Cecil Scott Forester rather than his birth name Cecil Louis Troughton Smith
1924 – First novel published A pawn among kings
1926 – married
1935 – Published The African Queen
1945 – divorced
1947 – married
1951 – Film The African Queen released
1966 – Died, 2 April in California

Books on World War 1

The African Queen (1935)

Sources

The CS Forester Society
Wikipedia – for a clear layout of publications and dates